The Life of a Rez Dog

Sobbing as we pulled out of the fog covered campground, two brown eyes followed my departure, equally miserable. As the car turned the final corner down the long gravel drive, the black wagging tail dropped in sad, submissive acceptance that the relationship we had shared for the past three days was merely temporary. She would go back to her life of wandering the streets of this poverty stricken reservation; hopping from porch to porch, campsite to campsite in search of an empathetic tourist or fortunate local who had some spare food or a warm, dry place to rest her sweet head. Such was the life of a reservation dog. A life I simply could not accept.

When we pulled into the Makah Reservation located in the most Northwestern point of the United States, I expected to encounter a land of tradition and culture. I was excited to visit the local museum, to learn about the history of this area and to savor the breathtaking scenery that this part of the country boasted. (I would like to stress here that the museum was informative and very well organized and the scenic viewpoints were breathtaking. There were definite positives to this beautiful part of the country, please don’t get me wrong.)

As soon as we crossed the border into the reservation land, the expectations of quaint little fishing villages were shot to hell. Single wide trailer after single wide trailer lined the poorly maintained roads. Children ran about unattended, stray dogs were curled up in the middle of the street. I had never seen such poverty in my life. And I have witnessed poverty.

Living in the Deep South for nearly three years, you get a good taste of what life is like on the “other side of the tracks.” However, the whole area wasn’t like this. You would have poor communities nestled deep in the Alabama bogs but five minutes later, you’d come across a well maintained home with a lawn scattered with fragrant magnolia and orange trees. There was none of this here. If you were lucky enough out come across an actual house, it was more than likely just as run down as the trailers. Aside from a few ritzy beach homes that were only visited by the wealthy during the warmer summer months, luxury was a foreign word.

Pulling into the Hobuck Beach Campground, I paid for three nights and was told to pick any spot in the open area to camp. We were fortunate to arrive on a Sunday afternoon so all of the weekenders had already headed out. After finding a perfect spot nestled right in the trees where the forest met the beach, we set up camp and prepared for a lazy day lounging in the late summer sun, enjoying a contraband drink or two. Upon setting up our tent, table and the rest of the camp, we took a stroll around the campground to check out the amenities. As soon as we started walking, we were happily surprised by three dogs who wandered up to us; tails wagging eagerly as they greeted our Jack Russell Terrier. We go out of our way to find places to stay that are dog−friendly so any campground that is alright with having dogs run around off leash, playing together in the sand and surf, definitely meets our criteria.

After a few hours of what we call “puppy time,” all but one of these dogs ran off in different directions; I assumed back to their respective campsites, back to their owners. An older black lab mix had plastered herself to my side. Wherever I went, she followed. Down to the beach, around the campsite or to the restroom, she was there; waiting outside the building whining until I came out again. She had been with us all day without going back to what I assumed was her site for lunch so I fed her some dry dog food and gave her some water, assuming that her owners had stupidly left her at the campground while they went off doing some un-dog friendly activity for the day. As evening drew near and her owner still had not presented himself, I went from site to site asking around to see if I could find her home. No one claimed the poor girl.

Finally, a couple gave me some startling news.

“Is she a big, black dog?” asked a woman who later introduced herself to me as Melinda.

“Yep! Looks like lab and Great Dane mix,” I responded.

“She was here three weeks ago when we were. She is one of the rez dogs.”

“A rez dog? What the hell is a rez dog?” I wondered to myself. Melinda went onto explain this sad truth to me as I watched her story unfold in horror.

“Rez dogs are stray dogs that really don’t belong anywhere. They wander from house to house all over the reservation. Pretty much the only food they get is from campers, the locals here really can’t afford to feed them.” Melinda seemed totally unphased and accepting of this fact; just shrugging it off as if it were totally commonplace and simply the way things were up here.

“Seriously?” I asked. “Can’t someone do anything about it?”

“Well,” she continued, “Unless the dogs pose some kind of threat, there really isn’t anything anyone can do. I mean, if you look at her, she isn’t starving. She clearly gets fed. If you think about it, this is kinda a dog’s nirvana. They are free to wander this whole space and come and go as they please.”

I was not convinced. I am not convinced.

How was this a good thing for anyone? Families have to constantly worry that a stray dog will snap at any time and attack their children and as for the dogs, though “well fed” in the summer, they have no real home. Where do they go ten months out of the year when it rains and only fanatic surfers and nature-goers visit this area? Who feeds them? Who gives them a dry place to sleep? Sadly, the answer is no one.

For the time being, she needed a name. We had been calling her Moammar Gadhafi (horrible, I know) but we figured she needed one that was a bit more fitting to her personality. So, we nicknamed this huge pile of love Chief. Though not necessarily a girl’s name, it suited her perfectly as she seemed to have an air of authority amongst the other dogs that wandered in and out of the campground. For the time we had her, Chief was happy and fed. She went with us on long walks up and down the coast and followed us on a 4 mile walk along the Wa’atch River that ran nearby.

After dinner the first night, she curled up right at my feet, warming herself by the roaring fire. When it came time to sneak into our tent to catch some zzz’s, a problem presented itself. This dog was trying everything to get into that tent to curl up with me to go to sleep! As adorable as she was, there was simply no room in our already cramped abode and let’s face it, when was the last time this dog had a bath!? So, after much coaxing and gentle commands, Chief managed to get comfortable right outside the tent entrance which is where she stayed until I got up the next morning.

This behavior continued for three days; by my side during the day, sleeping by our tent at night. When we left on day two for a day hike and returned to the camp, she was sitting there by my chair, patiently waiting for me to return. When a dog smiles at you, I mean when a dog really smiles at you, it is the best feeling in the world. Knowing the amount of unconditional love that is felt for you is just a fantastic emotion. Knowing that the bond was going to be short lived, not so great.

I’m sure Chief was familiar with the feeling of being left behind. She knew as soon as I started loading the car what was going to happen. Every time I stopped to pack something or to think for a second, she curled up right at my feet, her chocolate eyes begging me not to leave her.

Our dog had a lot of pent up energy that morning so my boyfriend ran with him through the campground until he got to the road where I met him with the car. This was definitely a good thing as it gave me a moment to let it all out; I didn’t want anyone to see me blubbering. Watching that dog in the rear view mirror broke my heart. I couldn’t stand the fact that it might be days before someone would be kind enough to give her a meal or share their fire with her.

Even worse was the horrible guilt I felt by not doing anything about it. What was I going to do? Steal a dog? Take on the entire reservation? What about all of the other Native American reservations throughout the country who are dealing with similar or worse problems? Still, I wish there was something I could have done, something I could do.

I hardly noticed the shabby clothes of the kids running around in the streets, but a dog shivering in the rain? That brings me to tears. There is no excuse for cruelty to animals. I find it so hard to use poverty as a justification for this issue. I understand that with no money to spay and neuter these dogs, no money to feed them, there is little the locals can do. It is an incredibly frustrating issue that seems to circle around and around, with little hope for resolution.

Writing this, my eyes fill with tears just thinking about where she is or what she is doing now. I only hope that some kind camper will look at Chief with the same adoration as I did and will have the heart to take her under their wing until it comes time for them to leave. So I raise my glass to all those kindhearted individuals who care enough to take the time out of their day to help an animal in need. I raise my glass to you Chief, you sweet, beautiful girl.

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5 thoughts on “The Life of a Rez Dog

  1. I’m trying to find the right words to express how I feel and I’ve discovered I simply don’t have them. Our lives get touched in small, but very significant ways, and clearly this furry animal – looking for affection wherever she could find it – touched yours. I think it speaks volumes about you as a person 🙂

  2. I often skim through long posts but I had to read this one from start to finish. What a powerful evocation of the need dogs have to form bonds with us. Clearly Chief could find food but what she also wanted was affection, closeness and love. You gave her that for as long as you could, and others will do the same. Great post Christina.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! I often think of her, where she is now, who is feeding her and giving her affection, etc. It was such a beautiful, albeit short lived, bond! 🙂

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